Recently Liz Stephen was kind enough to sit down and share some of her thoughts on the season. Liz had an excellent year, placing 15th in the Pursuit and 17th in the 30km at the World Championships in Liberec. She also won two National Titles, placed 4th and 7th in two U23 Championship events, teamed with Kikkan Randall in the World Cup Team Sprint in Whistler, finishing 4th, and was 24th in the Pursuit that same weekend. She has established herself as one of the top skiers in the country and is one of a group of talented young skiers rising through the ranks – and she does it all with a smile on her face, and an impressive modesty.
FasterSkier: You traveled to Anchorage for US Nationals in January. The conditions out there frustrated a lot of people. How was your experience and how did it affect your season?
Liz Stephen: For sure, Anchorage was a bummer, but it was a bummer for everyone. There were 400 athletes, hundreds of volunteers and parents who were all there to be a part of a week of ski racing, and only 2 of the 4 races got off the ground. It was colder that week than it was all winter in Alaska, or close to it, so it was a bit of bad luck. The only way not to drive yourself crazy in a week of sitting around, skiing as much as your body could handle, which was about an hour or two a day in those temperatures, is to remind yourself that you are not the only one dealing with it. As I look back on that week, it is pretty comical to see myself literally running everywhere I went outside, whether it was from the lodge to the wax trailer, to the trails, or from my hotel to the local diner for breakfast and lunch. Window shopping went out of style that week. If the store looked even remotely interesting, you ran through the doors and perused for at least 2 minutes before braving the outdoors again, and malls became temples.
FS: You posted solid results at U23s along with your female teammates. What was U23s like this year, and how do you think the United States is competing at that level with other nations?
LS: U23’s was in Prad de Lys, France this year, and we had a great group of athletes and staff. Everyone worked together really well and we had some impressive results, especially at the World Junior level. Our results over the last few years have certainly begun to be much more competitive than they were in the past, and I am convinced we are moving in the right direction. Our juniors seem to be really stepping up to the challenges and are excited to race the Europeans and see where they stack up. There is certainly a long way to go for the US to ever gain the respect that Norway or Sweden has in terms of results, but it is a very doable distance.
FS: After U23s, you stayed in Europe to compete in World Cup races. Did you enjoy this extended time in Europe? What is traveling and racing with the US Ski Team like?
LS: I love to travel, and think it is one of the best parts of being a skier, and to do it with my team is incredible. I learn a lot from the World Cup athletes and being in a couple of World Cups was really fun. I was on the World Cup circuit for about 4 weeks this year and I certainly fell in love with the European lifestyle. I got to know a lot of the athletes on other teams and it became homey to see them every week. The racing is serious and at first really scary, but something that never changes from the time you enter your first race until the day we hang our skis up, is that any race you enter is simply that. It is a cross-country ski race, period. It is a chance to push yourself to the absolute limit and see where you end up among your competitors and your goals, so when the stress hits, I try and remember that.
FS: At the World Championships in Liberec you were part of a US Women’s squad that performed historically well. How did you put together such solid results? Particularly, how did you feel skiing the 7th fastest skate leg in the 15km pursuit race?
LS: Speaking of stress hitting! I am not sure how I ever clamed down enough to race well that week. I was coming off my worst races all year, at the World Cups in Valdidentro, Italy, and my confidence had taken a serious hit. With the help of my coaches I had put those races behind me, though, and most of the stress was coming from the simple fact that I was at World Championships. I would show up to train every day and skiers like Virpi and Bjorgen and Teichman would go blowing by me on all sides. I felt very in the way and as though I did not belong at the Championships. Coaches can tell you all day and night that you belong racing among the best in the world, but if you don’t believe it, it doesn’t sink in. I was a disaster testing classic skis the morning of the pursuit, but our wax techs were so incredibly dialed and I had the best classic skis I have ever had, and ended up skiing the best classic leg I feel I have ever skied. I did more than just hang on, I was moving up in the field and was relaxed. So, when I hit the skate leg, I was more rested than I usually am. I had a good skate leg, for sure, but what was really exciting about it was that I didn’t feel like I had skied a race that I could never repeat. I certainly felt strong, but I didn’t feel like some sort of superhuman, it was just a good race.
Being a part of this World Championship team was unreal. It was for sure the highlight of my season, and seeing Kikkan ski to a silver medal gave me a smile that lasted for days, and a tingle that lasted all season.
FS: Upon your return to the US, you traveled to Fairbanks, where you tore it up, winning both the distance races, as well as the team sprint. How was the second round of National Championships in Alaska?
LS: Much better than the first!
FS: You have skied ridiculously well at Fairbanks, winning all four of the Distance Nationals races there in the last two years. What is it about the course, Fairbanks, Springtime, or all of the above that allows you to compete so well?
LS: I am partial to Fairbanks, as the courses there are some of my favorite, and I feel really comfortable being there, as I have raced there a lot over the years. It is also my favorite time of year to be a ski racer. The bulk of the season is over, and though these are important races, the atmosphere is very different than Nationals at the beginning of the season. People are tired and looking forward to spring and a bit of a break, and anything that happens at that time in the season is sort of a bonus to the rest of the season. I can’t pretend I didn’t get a little nervous, but I am also much more relaxed than I am at any other time of year. I love mass starts and 3 out of the 4 races last week were mass starts, and they were long distance races, which are what I truly love to do. There is nothing better than feeling totally worked at the end of a long winter of racing and then going home to relax and adventure.
FS: What was your favorite part of this season, and your least favorite?
LS: My favorite part, was getting to be a part of the World Championship team this year. The experience was incredible, as was the team I was a part of. It is hard to come up with something about the winter that was a bummer, other than sitting around in Anchorage for a week waiting to race in temperatures that were too cold, so I guess that would have to be it.
FS: Looking ahead to next year, what is in store for you this summer and next fall? After that, are you excited for the Olympics? You had a chance to ski the courses this winter. What were your thoughts? How do you feel about the “home field advantage” that the US will have?
LS: I will be living and training in Park City, Utah again this year. The facilities are great as are the resources I have, including classes at Westminster College in SLC. I work at a coffee shop on Main Street called Java Cow, so if you are ever in town, stop in! I am excited for the Olympics, and hope I will get to be there myself. The courses are fun, though I wish they would use more of their terrain and send us on slightly bigger loops to maximize their hills, but, they are certainly fun trails to ski and race. We will have another camp there in September, but I feel like we all know the trails very well, and I think it could be a big advantage for us as a country.
FS: Thanks Liz, and good luck in the coming months!